WASHINGTON — SpaceX now has a quarter of a million subscribers for its Starlink satellite broadband service as it looks to move into new markets like aviation.
Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of Starlink commercial sales at SpaceX, said during a panel at the Satellite 2022 conference March 22 that while Starlink is best known for its consumer broadband service, it was also working to provide services for enterprises and other sectors.
“We currently have 250,000 subscribers, and that’s across consumer, enterprise and many businesses,” he said. SpaceX is manufacturing “close to eight satellites a day” at its Redmond, Washington, facility as the company builds out its constellation.
Beyond consumer broadband, he cited demand for Starlink from other markets, such as cellular backhaul and services for schools. “There’s just a number of different people coming out of the woodwork that need connectivity,” he said.
One of those emerging markets for Starlink is aviation. “Connectivity on airplanes is something we think is ripe for an overhaul,” Hofeller said. “The expectation has changed faster than the technology has changed.”
SpaceX has developed an aviation antenna currently being tested, he said, and is working to get it certified on “various aircraft.” He didn’t give an anticipated schedule for completing that, but said the company planned to offer a service for commercial airliners that would be indistinguishable from conventional internet access. “We’re designing a service where every single passenger on that plane can stream simultaneously.”
Hofeller, asked how many subscribers the company needs for Starlink to be profitable, declined to give a number. However, he said the profitability of the system would improve with as second generation of satellites, something that company founder Elon Musk had previously suggested.
“I think we have a successful architecture,” he said. “Version one is sustainable but, from where we want to get from a profit standpoint, version two will be much more profitable.”
Pandemic and Ukraine
Hofeller and other panelists said they have seen a sharp increase in demand for satellite broadband services prompted by the pandemic.
“We found out how many people in our market were relying on broadband at their place of work or at school, and suddenly they couldn’t do that,” said Evan Dixon, president of global fixed broadband at Viasat. “It led us to double down on the idea that people want more bandwidth.”
Ruth Pritchard-Kelly, senior adviser for regulatory and space policy at OneWeb, said she believed the financial community became convinced of the market for satellite broadband when, at the start of the pandemic two years ago, executives decamped from New York and London to rural areas, only to find spotty connectivity. “It really proved to the money people that this was a need, a real need, for everybody in the world.”
Financiers, she added, were also convinced by the relatively late entry of Amazon into the satellite broadband business, a move made by former chief executive Jeff Bezos with its Project Kuiper system. “If he thinks he can be last and beat all of these competitors and be a viable competitor, this is a real business. This is not just a niche,” she said.
While governments are investing more into expanding broadband services, Hofeller was critical of some approaches that funded infrastructure over results, he argued. “We support architectures where they’ve designed the funding to support the end user. The end user needs affordable internet,” he said.
Satellite, he added, can provide broadband service far more quickly than building out fiber. “We had folks who would call us on a Friday and their school would be connected on Monday,” he said. “That sort of instant gratification is not something governments know how to react to.”
Starlink has also garnered attention for providing services in Ukraine in response to a request from a government minister after Russia’s invasion of the country. Hofeller didn’t discuss the company’s work in Ukraine but Dixon appeared to criticize the publicity SpaceX generated for its work there.
“The important thing for us, though, is not what we’re doing in Ukraine. We’re doing plenty in Ukraine, but it’s not something we publicize and we’re not going to. We’re certainly not going to make publicity out of a war,” Dixon said. He did, though, discuss Viasat’s work providing connectivity to Ukrainian refugees in Slovakia.
Satellites can help refugees from war zones or natural disasters, said Pritchard-Kelly. “I think we’re all being approached by various government entities, seeing what can be done, both in and nearby Ukraine,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s that significantly different from other emergencies.”